When paddling, what do you do poorly?

I recently recertified in an instructor course. The weekend highlighted what I have known for sometime, my basic strokes aren’t very good. I’d probably fair a little better in a canoe (I was recertifying in kayak) but admit my strokes would still be pretty weak in that craft as well. I’ve been told that I “splash too much, my strokes aren’t deep enough, and have some rotation issues on stern rudders.” Not really all that surprising given how little formal training I have received. “Slowing everything down” and doing everything up to demonstration quality is where my struggle is.

My roll has also been pretty inconsistant. If I don’t practice regularly than I’m not likely to succeed. Some of that is physical. I’ve got to be “stretched out” to have a shot at it. For some time now I’ve been working to improve my paddling posture and forward stroke mechanics. I practice quite a bit with my eyes closed. It is getting better.

Another thing I’m guilty of is a “paddle drag” if moving water situations. What can I say, “I’m still a bit of a float and brace” kind of guy. Old habits die hard. None of this bothers me too much. My help is always free, although my local paddling club will help reimburse my certification costs.

I’m a complete novice trying to get one of those long skinny ocean kayaks to turn. Almost no seat time doing that. Perhaps a basic sea kayaking class will be in my future.

I probably do a whole lot of things poorly, including things that I think I am doing reasonably well. If you ever want a painful demonstration of your limitations, have someone film you and it will be immediately apparent what you are doing wrong.

I started out in canoes and have done a considerable amount of whitewater open boating, but later went to a kayak for cold water paddling and more difficult whitewater. I can still roll a kayak pretty well, at least the last time I tried, but I doubt that I could now roll a canoe. My open boat roll was always a 50:50 proposition. I could never tolerate a C1 although I still own a couple.

In my case I have had a lot of formal instruction in both whitewater canoe and kayak including at least 6 multi-day clinics at the Nanatahala Outdoor Center and Endless Rivers Adventures, private instruction at both places, and some clinics with various canoe clubs. And I have had some world class instructors including Tom Foster, Jimmy Holcomb, Nolan Whitesell, Gordon Black, and Ron Lugbill in canoe and Ken Kastorff and Jon Clark in kayak as well as many others. But knowing the theory and executing are two different things.

I have tended to lose whatever degree of ambidexterity I once had. I notice this mostly when paddling stern in a tandem canoe. I paddle primarily on the right side of the boat and at one time my correction strokes (C, J, Canadian) were as good on the left as they were on the right. But now my correction strokes on the left are distinctly less good. Also like many whitewater open boaters I have tended to favor my on-side where a strong low brace is available. One of my biggest limitations in whitewater open boating has been some reluctance to really commit to my offside when crossing strong eddy lines to eddy out or peel out into strong current. And although I have tried, I have never been able to properly execute what has been called “the righting pry”. Another stroke that I really wish was stronger is my stern draw. When bow surfing a wave, a strong and effective stern draw is often required to stay on the wave and I often don’t have the necessary oomph. I think this is an issue of inadequate core strength.

One thing I fail miserably at is “thinking backwards” at those times when you get turned around in a rapid and have to run backwards. The boat is moving backwards but I am still thinking forward and I tend to heel the canoe in exactly the wrong direction crossing an eddy line. I was never very good at 360s because I would often fail to reverse the heel of the boat at the critical time. And forget about reverse eddy turns. “Setting” into an eddy is also a challenge. I just don’t have a very good perception of what is happening directly behind me.

As for normal flat water paddling in either canoe or kayak I probably don’t have as much torso rotation and extension as I should have. And when I get lazy, I tend to bring the forward strokes too far back for optimal efficiency. I try to concentrate on both torso rotation and trying to get a solid plant and catch with the blade fully immersed before applying power on the forward stroke.

I work mostly on my forward stroke, but need to pay more attention to other stroke options.

I tend to rush my roll. Ir works OK, but I need to slow it down for better consistency.

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What you describe is nothing more than not practicing “every” time you are on the water.

You know the skills. Get into a habit of using advanced stokes even on a glassy flat straight paddle. Others may question why you are weaving so much, but silently you will know that you are keeping up your basic skills. Additionally, it is a good way to be productive to slowly paddle with floaters.

Every ACA IT/BCU Coach does something similar when I have paddled with them both in and outside formal training. You are a pro as an instructor…continue to practice on your own whenever on the water.


Skill is very relative. We all tend to think we are pretty good into we run into someone that is really skilled.

I have lead a lot of trips over the years. I have run out of patience for people that are not honest about their skill level, people that will not stay together in a group and people that do not realize that canoeing and rafting are team sports. No more cat herding.

Actually I think my depth of knowledge on paddle strokes is pretty limited, I’m not all too sure what I’m supposed to do. Instuctor classes assume you have that knowledge all ready and tend to be evaluative. My first introduction to paddling was on family outings, my Dad was quite ethusiastic but clueless. We survived overnight canoe trips on the Rockcastle River (ky) but barely. When I started to work for Maine High Adventure BSA (1980) I got some better basic instruction and really got the paddling bug.
I’ve only taken one class related to my own personal paddling development and that was sort of a fluke. I had signed up for an instructor recert/upgrade and the class got canceled (the lead instructor had a family medical emergency) so I took a skills clinic at the Noli center from Scott Fisher this past July. My recert class this Fall was a different venue and a different instructor.

I know some pro boaters (Shane Groves, Clay Wright, Chris Wing) and I’m not one of them. I am however a guy that organizes, shows up and helps out when folks want to learn. I’m living proof that you don’t need good paddle strokes to have video boated on the New and the Gauley which I did in the 80’ and the early 90s. In fact, I put the emphasis on quick strokes rather than slow deep strokes. I would have told you that shallow strokes are good (especially in the second drop of lost paddle) , you hit less rocks with shallow strokes. I would also tell you that you need to go faster (forward paddling) and drive the boat or slower than the current (backpaddling in ww in a loaded tripping canoe). The whole idea of gliding (arcing turns) wasn’t in my vocabularly.

With kayaking I’m at an even bigger disadvantage when it comes to form. When I couldn’t kneel anymore I decided to kayak. How hard could it be? Now I got two blades. I already know how to balance the boat and my center of gravity is lower (than the c1) and I know how to read water and deal with current. Well, the paddle, that’s just sort of there to make the boat go, oops I’m still holding it like a canoe paddle (off center).

So it’s not just practice that I need. You have to know what to practice. I guess the idea of taking basic instruction in a new environment (wv ain’t exactly on the ocean so for me that would be a new environment) is more appealling for me. Will the typical sea kayaking class emphasize proper strokes?

Pete I spent three days this summer try to “clean up my eddy turns and peelouts” with Scott Fisher. I practiced it a bunch after the class as well and got better at it. Specifically, on peelouts I am trying to time out my last forward stroke on the down stream side of the boat and then convert it to a bow draw. What I did previously was paddle out on the upstream side and then do a static high brace (duffek) to turn the boat on the downstream side…

Doing anything backwards or with your eyes closed is a sure fire way to make things hard. Somewhere along the line I did develop a good righting pry in the c1. Not to say that I could do it now. Heck I can’t even sit in a c1 now. I found eddy sets really useful on tight streams where you didn’t want to swing the boat. Sometimes I’ll eddy set in a kayak above a drop I haven’t run before. Looking directly downstream I can see better than looking back over my shoulder. Real useful if you want to see how a “probe” does…and of course the whole backpaddling thing is real useful if you forget your sprayskirt and want to run the dry lines. Situational awareness good, technique level not so good.

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My paddling perspective is only from that of a kayaker (and only trained in open water though I enjoy rivers and up to Class2 ww). Sounds like you might benefit from a Level 2 or 3 course with a senior instructor (if you can find one) or alternately an IDW portion at the same level. Those should focus more on your technique than you actually teaching/performing.

Most encouraging is that your self assessment is realistic and you know your limitations. Sounds like you would make a great paddling buddy and student (for that lucky IT/instructor).

I’m with ya kayakhank, that’s kind of where I’m headed with all of this. I’m thinking a skills class for “open water” by a technician is just what I need. That way I get the challenge of a new environment and different kayak type and can go back and learn the basic strokes. Might help with the rolling as well. Don’t worry my ego won’t suffer, in my mind I’ve mastered paddling the pbr can, now if I can just overcome all that bad muscle memory!

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Depending on who you ask, I assume that I do everything wrong when canoeing. I know I sometimes get lazy about maintaining a vertical paddle shaft and as pblanc mentioned I’m sure I could improve on consistent torso rotation. When I focus on torso rotation (which is rarely) I’m always surprised by the additional power in the stroke.

The activity I am worse at is getting on the water. Compared to most of the respondents my paddling skills are a joke. I know enough to get where I want to go without drowning, I hope.
I paddle to get away from the Insanity a lot of people think is normal life.
I am never more at peace than when I’m either in a kayak or sitting in the woods by myself, surrounded by living things most will never see, smell, feel, or hear.


Hey String if you can “get there” without drowning you got high “situational awareness.” You also got the whole “Zen thing” going, so you’re way ahead of the rest of us, you’re a spiritual leader of the cult of the creeky knees and hips. You “teach less, and share more” (Joseph Cornell’s first tenet of Sharing Nature with Children).
I admit sometimes I have trouble drinking all the aca kool-aid. I’m totally with the safety stuff: wear the pfd, dress for immersion, boat within your abilites etc. I usually Zen the rest of it up a bit. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? What are you scared of? What do you want to get out of today? What would a good day on the water look like? Weirdly, I want to gain some technical proficiency. There’s got to be a proper way to hug a tree, paddle a boat, or enjoy nature. The steps are on my clipboard and there’ll be a test afterwards.

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I would have to say all of the above is what I need work on! I’ve watched videos to learn, but I’ve never had any training and never even paddled with an experienced paddler. I bought a rec boat, spend a lot of time paddling, upgraded and figured out how different it is to paddle a touring boat so started watching videos and paddling more. Upgraded or added to the fleet several times, still watch videos and try to think about what I’m doing out there, but if I ever have the opportunity to spend time with an actual instructor, my bad habits probably make me a worse student than someone new to the hobby.

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If you are looking to get into sea kayaking, I would highly recommend taking a paddle stroke class unless you can go out with really knowledgeable kayakers to give you tips and watch how you paddle. Turning a sea kayak, means using your body as well as your paddle (and rudder if you have one). The longer the kayak the more important having the right technique if you want to turn quickly. Be sure to practice strokes and bracing on a regular basis so it comes naturally should you need to make a quick change under less than perfect conditions. Kayaking is a whole different thing from canoeing. I love both and probably not perfect at either but hope to keep learning as I go.

Anything off-side except cross bow draw. On-side on the left isn’t as good as on the right, either. Yet I get by. Could be better, could be worse. That’s not an uncommon situation nor is it one to lose sleep over.
Ever wonder if, when our day comes, St. Pete will consult with St. Sigurd concerning what our numerical ranking among paddlers is? Come to think of it, I don’t wonder about it either.

This may sound ridiculous but… when I’m paddling and getting my core into the stroke my stomach makes some excess acid. Last trip I poorly prepared and forgot the TUMS. Anyone else experience this?

Rex, Tums are a part of my gear whatever I’m doing. I’ve had massive heart burn a couple of times when paddling. Bad thing!

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Nobody’s Really Charon

“Stop yer lamentin’! No, ya can’t use my paddle!
I’ve seen yer technique, ya lillydipped addled!”
To coin this man’s phrase, with no coin in my eye,
“Best Styx with yer pole, for yer shore paddle wrecked guy!”


Throw your calcium into the lake!
And Alka Seltzer ad naseum, you’ll bubble up hake,
or perhaps bass and crappie, shall arise on occasion.
A paddler’s diet sans acid, you’ve added into rotation!


Speak loudly and carry a big Styx?

I think that is one of your best efforts yet, Thomas.

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I’m the stern in a tandem canoe. My forward and J strokes are about the same on both sides. However, I’m much more comfortable in big waves on my right. Let’s say a big wave set is coming at us from a passing boat. We switch so that I’m paddling on my right side because I don’t have the confidence to set the angle to the wave and brace on my left. I’ve done it a few times, but it’s iffy. I need to take more chances (risk capsizing!) to increase my conficence and get better.

Some people have posted about rotation. This is much easier to do if your feet are firmly anchored to the boat.

I’ve found that working on technique all the time ruins the day. So, try to be aware for just a few minutes every hour or for a short stretch every day. For those few minutes, really focus on just one element. I spent two years working on burying my blade at the catch. i didn’t focus on any other apsect of my stroke. During that time. every so often, I would remember and work on it. Now, the movement is more natural.

Whatever you’re working on (vertical shaft, burying the blade at the catch, minimizing J rotation, exiting the paddle at your hips, increasing cadence, etc) allow yourself to improve slowly, but do notice your improvements. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss, if you’re not perfect or even if your paddling technique worsens. Part of learning is unlearning and that can lead to worse technique initially. Then, things fall into place and your stroke improves.

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